Significant steps in long-running dispute between al Gosaibi family and Maan al Sanea

Could one of Saudi Arabia's most high profile business battles - between the Al Gosaib family and Maan Al Sanea - be entering its end game?

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The confrontation between the al Gosaibi family of Saudi Arabia and Maan al Sanea, the head of the Saad Group, has become a war of attrition, with long periods of stalemate punctuated by occasional outbreaks of resource-depleting hostility.

So it was last week, as the lawyers appeared to be clearing their desks ahead of the Easter holiday.

The most significant piece of action came in London's High Court in a ruling made public only a few days ago.

Mr Justice Burton, a judge in the commercial court there, turned down an application from the al Gosaibi's family partnership, Ahmad Hamad Al Gosaibi & Brothers, to have Mr al Sanea joined in an action being brought by BNP, the French bank, which is claiming US$4 million (Dh14.6m) in unpaid loans from the company.

By the standard of some of the other claims levelled against parties in the long-running dispute, $4m is a grain of sand on the shore.

Remember Al Gosaibi is alleging that Mr al Sanea stole some $5 billion from it, which left the company unable to repay $9bn to 118 banks worldwide.

But the company also wanted to establish an important principle. The family faces lawsuits from some of the banks owed money, and could still face more. So the tactic was to link Mr al Sanea to these actions as a co-defendant, as if to say "look, you should really be suing him".

Mr al Sanea has maintained throughout that he is innocent of all accusations the al Gosaibis allege, and has denied charges of fraud, theft and forgery levelled against him.

The judge in London decided the action should not be joined, partly because Al Gosaibi did not seek to do so in other actions, and also because he had doubts that London was the place to settle such matters. He indicated he believed Saudi Arabia was a more appropriate forum for legal action between the company and Mr al Sanea.

This is significant.

It might all seem a matter of dull legalese, but the al Sanea camp was quick to seize on the opportunity to crow about a reversal for their enemies.

For the best part of two years now, most of the action in this most bitter of disputes has come in the courts. It must be reassuring to know that the tens of millions of dollars spent on lawyers are at least getting some results.

Meanwhile a further development took place in the Cayman Islands, where Al Gosaibi is suing Mr al Sanea and has frozen the assets of his holding companies there.

The liquidator to most of those assets, the accounting firm Grant Thornton, appears to have had a distinct change of heart in the affair.

Although as liquidator it is officially neutral and acting simply to get assets returned to the creditors whom it represents, it was assumed all along Grant Thornton believed the fraud allegations, and was at least sympathetic to the al Gosaibi family's actions against Mr al Sanea.

Last week came further evidence this is no longer the case. Grant Thornton issued its own counterclaim in the Cayman court, seeking $8.2bn fromAl Gosaibi. That is a gigantic sum, almost certainly beyond the family's ability to pay.

Most of it is in the form of promissory notes (corporate IOUs) signed by al Gosaibi family members, which the company claims are forgeries. Grant Thornton appears to believe they are authentic. There will be more work for the handwriting experts.

But most intriguing were the whispers coming from Saudi Arabia. Some 18 months ago, King Abdullah set up a committee to investigate the whole affair. Nothing much has been heard from this body, and its function - whether adjudicative or investigative - has never been made clear.

Now there are suggestions the committee has been wound up, with no conclusive deliberation either way, other than an order to the two parties to sort it out themselves.

Mr al Sanea says he has already done this with regard to his Saudi creditors, though details have never emerged.

Some local Saudi banks are suing Al Gosaibi for a total of $2.4bn, which could be a sign the authorities have given the go-ahead to creditors to take action against the company to recover their assets. Some international banks are also planning action against it in London for some $220m.

All this legal action represents a field day for the lawyers, but the time must come when either Al Gosaibi or Mr al Sanea decide not to throw more money away on legal actions, or run out of the financial resources to pursue the campaign.